More than seventy-five percent of the unelectrified homes in the United States are located on tribal lands, according to American Public Power Association.
The topic of energy is often discussed in terms of its impact on economics, sustainability, and resilience. Oftentimes the energy independence and economic equality nexus are ignored. In technologically advanced countries, electricity outage durations are not significant enough to have a long-term impact on the population. If we imagine a situation where lack of reliable electricity is a way of life, we can begin to consider the impact that the lack of electricity has on essential human rights and access to health care, education, community development, hygiene, drinking water, and the ability to work. In thinking of such a situation, we do not have to look far. The lack of reliable electricity is a severe reality impacting tribal communities and villages here in the United States.
Historically, the United State’s past is littered with federal, state and private attempts to violate, oppress, discriminate and eliminate tribal communities. The Indian Termination policies of the 1950s terminated native tribes, disbanded their cultural and political standing and then sold off ancestral lands to non-native interests. While a limited number of tribes were “terminated” from federal recognition, this policy was eventually outlawed by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 (History Through a Native Lens, 2020). Starting in the 1960s, tribal-led movements to reclaim their sovereignty included changing the approach to solving Indian Country power infrastructure and development challenges including specifically, lands on the Navajo Nation, Pine Ridge reservation and the Yurok Tribe.
Connecting Off-Grid Homes
In 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration, 14 percent of households on Native American reservations lacked access to electricity which is 10 times higher than the national average (INSIGHTS, 2014). Today, approximately 60,000 people in the Navajo Nation still do not have access to electricity in their homes. To address such issues, some tribes charted utilities like the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA). Tribal communities suffer from higher costs of service, higher interconnection fees, more blackouts or brownouts and remote and distant service locations. Tribal utilities have begun to electrify off-grid homes on their respective reservations. NTUA has used its existing NTUA solar power plant revenues to support projects like Light Up Navajo for off-grid homes in Navajo Nation. Sadly, data reveals that tribal utilities pay more to electrify reservation homes, recover less of their expended costs, and take more time to connect off-grid homes. (Gallucci, 2019).
COVID’s Effect on Electrifying Indian Country
Decades of insufficient federal government policies and years of poor electrification of tribal lands are now being exacerbated by the pandemic. Inadequate tribal infrastructure including lack of broadband services is resulting in tribal communities now dealing with poor online schooling connections. With many schools utilizing virtual learning, schools and students without access to electricity are unable to attend even with the assistance of donated computers and tablets. Due to the pandemic, NTUA currently has to delay the Light Up Navajo project. For the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, tribal communities are now utilizing larger amounts of electricity that they cannot afford due to being quarantined to their homes. According to Henry Red Cloud, founder of Lakota Solar of Pine Ridge Reservation, renewable energy development is the way forward for tribal lands and their communities. (Lee, 2020).
Climate Change and California’s Wildfires
On October 24, 2020, PG&E announced that about 53,000 residents in two tribal communities and several Northern California counties would be affected by a power shut off lasting 48 hours due to high wind speeds (Pinho, 2020). Several tribal communities in California are in both tier-two and tier-three high fire threat zones where Public Safety Power Shut Offs (PSPS’s) are taking place, leaving these communities powerless. Power shut-offs by California's major utility companies have made it clear to businesses and communities on tribal lands that they need to become more energy resilient and rely less on the main power grid.
Electrification Challenges and Solutions
Tribal lands are rich in natural resources. Indian Country is turning to renewable energy to achieve energy and economic independence. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), there is an approximate 17,600 billion kWh/year of solar energy potential and 535 billion kWh/year of wind energy potential on tribal lands across 48 U.S States. Although the potential for utilizing renewable energy resources on tribal lands is tremendous, the lack of knowledge from the broader business community with regards to tribal lands project development continues to impede progress. These challenges are unique to each tribal community but typically include the topics of finance, infrastructure, tribal leadership, tribal sovereignty, and cultural matters. Sandia National Laboratories also supports findings that insufficient investment and capital resources are the biggest barrier to renewable energy development on tribal lands.
The two options for electrification on tribal lands are the expansion of the electrical grid or the implementation of microgrids. Each of these options comes with challenges and benefits. The traditional power grid option is susceptible to the failure of aging infrastructure and limits the use of local energy sources. Moreover, the traditional grid option requires drastically changing the land for large utility-scale energy production which has traditionally negatively impacted the lives and culture of tribal communities. In contrast to the large grid footprint, the major challenges that microgrids face are the cost and permitting issues on tribal lands. Although the development of microgrids on tribal lands is costly, the expense is comparable to grid expansion with the added benefit of integrating local variable energy resources that may be unique for each tribe. The capability of microgrids to integrate local, variable energy resources paves the way for greater energy security and provides a sustainable business model that economically benefits the local community by keeping the energy savings within the tribal nations. Several tribal nations and villages have already commissioned microgrids as a step towards energy independence and a sustainable future.
Microgrid Examples on Tribal Lands
Blue Lake Rancheria, home of the Wiyot, Yurok, and Hupa Indians within Humboldt County near Eureka, California has received national attention for proving that a renewable energy microgrid is a successful solution to PSPS events. Tribal leaders designed the microgrid to provide climate-resilient infrastructure in preparation for earthquakes and tsunamis, but on October 9, 2019, the microgrid became exceptionally useful when PG&E shut-off power to 30 counties for a duration of 28-hours for wildfire mitigation. Humboldt County and its population of 136,000 people were left in the dark and emergency services for people with critical medical needs were directed to Blue Lake Rancheria. Their microgrid saved lives during the 28-hour outage and highlighted their invaluable investments, design and operations. According to Jana Ganion, Energy Director for Blue Lake Rancheria, “With future electricity shutoffs, rural communities, Native American reservations, in particular, need to be especially resilient. Many, many tribal nations are located at the end of the line in terms of the electricity grid, they may have no power, they may have poor quality power. Microgrids are just a way to do an end-run around all of that (Neumann, 2020).”
Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indians is an off-grid tribe based in the southern end of the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California. After the Band secured $102,000 under a 1999 grant for electric power lines or mini-grids, the Band quickly discovered that the total cost of the power lines and utility rates far outweighed the cost of developing an eco-tourism business powered by renewable technologies. Under their analysis, they determined that solar, wind, batteries and backup generators would provide lower costs for electricity and hot water. In addition, the Band avoided the need for seven to nine miles of trenching of electrical lines and prevented future erosion problems on their lands (Energy, n.d.).
The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians in southern Nevada completed a 250 MW microgrid. This microgrid system includes solar, battery storage and energy-efficient generators. Their system saves an estimated $700,000 annually in fuel costs for the Moapa Travel Plaza, which is the largest employer of the Tribe (INSIGHTS, 2014).
The Village of Tuntutuliak in western Alaska has nearly 400 Yup’ik Eskimos living together within this remote village. There are approximately 56 similar villages almost identical to Tuntutuliak within this region, all struggle with the extremely high energy costs of heating, transportation and electricity. These villages primarily use diesel-burning generators for electricity, which is very expensive. Energy costs consume approximately half of their overall budgets. Tuntutuliak however, is reducing their village's dependence on diesel generators by installing a renewable energy system that uses wind power, smart grid technology and residential thermal storage. Their project is paving the way to a new energy landscape for rural Alaska (INSIGHTS, 2014).
Modular Microgrids for Tribal Lands
Microgrids are typically unique and custom to each project since they utilize local renewable energy resources available to fulfill specific needs for each community. Although customized, unique microgrids can certainly meet the goal and requirements for a successful microgrid project, they also introduce prolonged project timelines, financial risk, and logistical complications. A predesigned modular microgrid that utilizes either “solar and battery storage” or “solar, battery storage, and an internal combustion generator” will simplify the design and build process of a typical custom microgrid. This modular microgrid approach significantly reduces the project timeline to approximately 9 months compared to 2-3 years. The reason for this simplification is that instead of having several parties and vendors (5 or more) involved in the design, engineering, technology integration, and project management the number of parties reduces to 2-3 since the microgrid has already been predesigned and configured. This approach alone reduces installation time, but to guarantee success and eliminate financial risk from the tribe that is choosing to invest in a modular microgrid, an energy-as-a-service approach is key. An energy-as-a-service approach for financing a microgrid should ideally include the following items from the provider:
- Complete feasibility, design, and engineering scope
- Construction, permitting, and interconnection
- $0 upfront cost
- A simple quarterly payment after commissioning that is affordable and competitive with the local market costs of electricity
- Ability and expertise to incorporate Department of Energy funding and other grant funding opportunities into the agreement to significantly reduce or eliminate the energy payment for the project
- Complete operation and maintenance plan to maintain the efficiency and reliability of the microgrid
- Technologically advanced smart grid controls and managing software for remote monitoring and continued asset management
Coupling the modular microgrid design with the energy-as-a-service financial package allows for immediate and rapid deployment of these projects on tribal lands for existing resorts, casinos, community centers, health care facilities and schools. In addition to providing energy resilience to existing buildings, the modular microgrid approach can promote greenfield projects on tribal lands such as hospitals, cold storage facilities, housing communities and food manufacturing facilities to name a few.
Despite the historic neglect of basic utility infrastructure on tribal lands, recent efforts from both the private and public sectors are making progress towards the goal of electrification and economic equality. However, the current rate of this progress is insufficient for reaching the goal in a reasonable timeframe. The traditional electrification method of grid expansion comes with many logistical, financial and environmental challenges. Microgrids are not exempt from these challenges but can accelerate the electrification efforts with the additional benefits of energy resilience, sustainability, local economic development and community engagement. The common challenge that remains with the development of microgrids is long project timelines, complicated ownership structures, and insufficient capital.
Modular, pre-configured microgrids enable system commissioning in less than one year compared to the typical development cycle to install a microgrid of 2-3 years. Modular microgrids leverage high-quality, standardized technology so tribes and villages can benefit from economies of scale and benefit from immediate energy savings. Utilizing an energy-as-a-service agreement, money can stay within the tribe. This type of agreement eliminates upfront capital requirements via a fully funded, pay-for-performance structure that includes risk-mitigating guarantees. This ultimately allows rapid economic advancement for tribal communities with a competitive advantage of pricing on the market value of the traditional utility service. Powering up tribal lands with modular microgrids makes the ongoing dream for energy independence and economic equality an obtainable reality.
Energy, O. o. (n.d.). Ramona Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians - 1999 Project. From Energy.gov: https://www.energy.gov/indianenergy/ramona-band-cahuilla-mission-indians-1999-project
History Through a Native Lens. (2020, December 13). From nativephilanthropy.candid.org/: https://nativephilanthropy.candid.org/timeline/era/indian-new-deal-tribal-termination-and-urban-relocation/
INSIGHTS. (2014, June 24). From Rocky Mountain Institute: https://rmi.org/blog_2014_06_24_native_energy_rural_electrification_on_tribal_lands/
Jones, D. T., & Necefer, D. L. (2016). Identifiying Barriers and Pathways for Success of Renewable Energy Development on American Indian Lands. Albuquerque: Sandia National Laboratories.
Lee, J. (2020, August 12). Living in the dark: Native reservations struggle with power shortages in pandemic. From The Gaurdian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/12/native-americans-energy-inequality-electricity
Native Energy: Rural Electrificaiton on Tribal Lands. (2014, June 24). From Rocky Mountain Institute: https://rmi.org/blog_2014_06_24_native_energy_rural_electrification_on_tribal_lands/
Neumann, E. (2020, January 11). Energy. From NPR: https://www.npr.org/2020/01/11/795248921/california-reservations-solar-microgrid-provides-power-during-utility-shutoffs
Pinho, F. (2020, October 14). Power Shut-Offs Coming Tonight in Northern California as Winds Pick Up. From Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-10-14/power-shut-offs-likely-in-northern-california-as-winds-pick-up-wednesday
Rowe, C. (2013, June 6). Coal Mining on Navajo Nation in Arizona Takes Heavy Toll. From huffpost.com: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/coal-mining-navajo-nation_n_3397118
Sandoval, C. J. (2018). The Yurok Tribes Trailblazing Work to Close the Native American Reservation Electricity Gap. In C. G. Gonzales, Energy Justice (pp. 166-207). United Kingdom: Edward Elgar.
 The Navajo Nation sits in three states - Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. It is a vast, rural area that covers 27,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia). The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is one of the poorest communities in the Western Hemisphere, likely due to its lack of access to basic utilities such as running water and electricity. One of the nation's first 100% Native American-owned and operated renewable energy companies - Lakota Solar Enterprises - helps these residents implement sustainable and energy independent projects. It works to train residents on operating clean energy technology, giving them access to job training and employment opportunities (Lee, 2020). The Yurok Tribe is one of the very few tribes that have never been removed from their ancestral lands in California. In 2005, 70% of the Yurok Reservation’s residents lacked access to electricity or basic telephone services. Many tribal members cannot afford the $40,000 per mile typically charged in California under CPUC Rule 15 for electric line extensions or under CPUC Rule 16 for electric service drop extensions. (Sandoval, 2018).